Print vs Digital: Which is Greener?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Interview by Robert Ivan with Don Carli, Executive VP of SustainCommWorld, METAPRINTER, March 22, 2010

image RI- Why are newspapers and other traditional publishers pushing the issue of eReaders as a communications medium when something like less than one third of one percent of the reading population of the United States owns these products? Is it a paper sustainability issue? Is it a cost issue? What’s the justification?

DC- Other than pushing the “cool” factor, one of the main selling points being made by marketers of eReaders is that they are greener than print. It is little surprise that the common view held by consumers who don’t know the backstory is that going digital means going green and saving trees. Many are in for a rude awakening. When subjected to “cradle-to-cradle ” Lifecycle Analysis eReading is not nearly as green as many naively assume it is.

There is no question that print media could do a better job of managing the sustainability of its supply chains and waste streams, but it’s a misguided notion to assume that digital media is categorically greener. Computers, eReaders and cell phones don’t grow on trees and their spiraling requirement for energy is unsustainable.

Making a computer typically requires the mining and refining of dozens of minerals and metals including gold, silver and palladium as well as extensive use of plastics and hydrocarbon solvents. To function, digital devices require a constant flow of electrons that predominately come from the combustion of coal, and at the end of their all-too-short useful lives electronics have become the single largest stream of toxic waste created by man. Until recently there was little if any voluntary disclosure of the lifecycle “backstory” of digital media.

Sadly, print has come to be seen as a wasteful, inefficient and environmentally destructive medium, despite the fact that much of print media is based on comparatively benign and renewable materials. In addition, print has incredible potential to be a far more sustainable medium than it is today… and a truly digital medium as well. Despite its importance to business, government and society, print has been cast in the role of a dark old devil in decline. Digital media has been cast as the bright young savior on the rise.

Ironically the future of digital media and eBook readers is likely to be based on flexible polymer electronics manufactured using printing presses rather than silicon semiconductor fabrication technologies. In fact, the next generation of eReaders will most likely be digital AND be printed. For example, major components of the soon to be released PlasticLogic eReader are printed flexible polymer electronics.

RI- What is the demand for eReaders now though?

DC: Well it’s a category that has been “emerging” for over 15 years. What one can say is that eReaders are once again capturing media attention and there appears to be significant latent demand for gadgets that can replace printed media, but mainstream adoption still remains years away. E-reader device sales and eReader content revenues are still rounding error in relation to print media revenues. In a survey of attendees at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair 40% predicted digital book content sales would overtake traditional printed book sales by 2018, but over 30% said digital content would never surpass traditional books sales, and 66% said they expect traditional books to dominate the market for the next decade.

We’ll likely see many fits, starts and failures with different products, media formats and business models over the next five years to ten years until someone hits on the sweet spot and develops a business model that supports the profitable creation of content as well as a system of commercially practical devices and a sustainable supporting infrastructure. One of the major problems is that people tend to be fixated on the announcements of cool new devices rather than on the development of business models and sustainable supply chain business ecologies.

For an example of what I mean, consider why Edison was successful. Edison didn’t invent the first electric light bulb, but he did develop the first commercially practical incandescent lighting system. It encompassed every aspect of the lighting lifecycle including not just the bulb but also a business model for a successful electric energy generation and distribution system.

I think a comparable challenge exists for eReaders. People focus on the eReader devices, but it’s not the invention of the coolest e-reader that matters most, it’s the availability of a sustainable business ecology that matters most. I don’t think traditional publishers or device manufacturers have yet identified that sweet-spot combination of content, medium and business model that’s required for e-readers to become mainstream.[Rfead rest of interview]

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